Israel refuses to rule out attack on Iran

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The Independent Online

Israel's Defence Minister refused to rule out a pre-empt-ive strike on Iran yesterday, claiming that Tehran was "close to a point of no return" on its suspected development of a nuclear weapon.

At a meeting with journalists in London, Shaul Mofaz did little to dispel the sense of unease caused by comments last week by the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who suggested Israel might "decide to act first" to end Iran's nuclear threat.

Mr Mofaz said: "I believe that none of the Western countries can live with Iran having a nuclear capability - not the US, not the European countries and nor other countries."

But he stressed that the "first step" should be through diplomatic channels to resolve the standoff with Iran, suspected by the US and Israel of using its civilian programme as a cover for weapons development.

"The way to stop Iran is by the leadership of the US, supported by European countries and taking this issue to the UN, and using the diplomatic channel with sanctions as a tool and a very deep inspection regime and full transparency."

Asked what Israel would do if diplomatic channels failed, Mr Mofaz went on: "The US is a strong power that can stop any kind of nuclear programme, especially in the hands of an extreme regime."

The Israeli minister left no doubt, however, he was sceptical about the outcome of negotiations with the Iranian government, which he said had been "buying time" through talks with Britain, France and Germany.

He warned that Tehran was "less than a year" from enriching uranium, which he described as the "point of no return" towards making a nuclear weapon. He echoed comments by the Mossad intelligence agency, which said that Iran could have developed a nuclear bomb in three years, a statement dismissed by Iran as baseless. Mr Mofaz rejected Iranian assertions that it was working on a peaceful civilian programme, saying that there was "no goal by the Iranian side for a civilian programme. Their goal is to achieve a military programme".

Pressure on Iran has been increasing recently in the form of aggressive statements from the Bush administration, branding the Tehran regime an "outpost of tyranny". Mr Cheney said Iran's nuclear programme put it at the "top of the list" of global issues.

The Iranian President, Mohamed Khatami, retorted: "We say that America is at the top of the list of countries that are endangering world peace and security and we hope that one day they come to their senses.

"[Negotiations with the EU] haven't reached a dead end," Mr Khatami went on. "Of course, we have our own stances and we are talking to the Europeans and we hope to reach a conclusion." Iran has agreed to suspend activities which could be used to make nuclear bomb material, such as uranium enrichment, and to try to reach a negotiated solution. But Mr Mofaz said: "Although there are some achievements by the suspension of the military programme, there is not a full stop."

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